CONTROVERSY surrounding plans to privatise the management of leisure centres in the New Forest has taken a new twist.

Opposition members of New Forest District Council have resigned from a working party set up to oversee proposals to outsource the running of the five centres.

Liberal Democrats Caroline Rackham and Mark Clark have accused the Tory-run authority of flying in the face of public opinion.

It comes after the council revealed that the centres at Applemore, Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood and Totton are set to lose income totalling £5m as a result of coronavirus restrictions.

Cllr Rackham said: "This is the wrong move at the wrong time.

"My colleague and I have had enough of this Conservative administration not listening to anyone - the public, opposition members, even the privately-voiced fears of their own backbenchers.

“A series of public meetings were held when the idea of privatisation was first floated.

"The feeling from the public was clearly against such a move, but the Tories decided to press on with their plans.

“A customer liaison panel of centre users was set up to keep the working group advised of the process.

"The panel itself decided to withdraw because they were so unhappy with the plans. Yet the Tories decided to ignore these strongly-held views and plough on regardless."

Cllr Rackham praised the way the centres had been run by council staff for more than 40 years.

She added: "It is simply not obvious how a private company coming into the district could take over, improve the service, and make enough money over a ten-year contract."

Cllr Clark added: "We remain deeply sceptical about the timing for this.

“Our often-repeated suggestion of putting this exercise on pause until at least two years 'normal' data could be gathered from the prospective bidders would have been the preferred option, but that was ignored.

“It is obvious that the management company will need to increase numbers to increase profits and we simply cannot see where those additional users will come from?

"The paperwork we have seen makes some very strong assumptions on revenue and income."

Cllr Mark Steele, cabinet member for leisure, said Liberal Democrat members wrote to him in July and October and also raised questions at meetings of a task and finish group.

He added: "We have listened and responded to all questions and queries raised.

"Our vision for the project has always been ‘to create active communities by providing affordable, accessible leisure facilities, dedicated to improving physical and mental health and wellbeing and establishing a sustainable healthy lifestyle legacy for future generations’.

"I remain confident that our procurement process will help us secure a viable long-term leisure service for the district.

"The next stage of the process is for any recommendations to be discussed at the community and leisure panel, cabinet and then council in February."